A strange thing happened to me this weekend.
For the first time since starting this blog, I actually had a moment this weekend where I stopped and seriously thought about what content I was going to add this afternoon. It struck me like an epiphany as I sat there watching old movies on a saturday night, and I was so proud of myself for thinking ahead…
In fact, to prove my foresight, here is the direct quote from my iPhone notes on the subject (via email):
“Monday’s blog ideas:
Discuss the idea of sharp writing; example ind. jones & last crusade after nazi chooses wrong grail cup and disintegrates, the camera pans to knight, and he says simply “He chose…poorly.”
The way using short concise, almost jab like phrases and/or descriptions can make or break a work.
“back up man…I’m a scientist…”
As you can tell, this was well on its way to being a Pulitzer Prize winning blog about how to jab your reader to death with spectacularly snappy verse or at least that was the plan when I woke up this morning.
I got up, got the kids and Barb out of the house, turned on some BBC Scotland Radio at the recommendation of a friend and opened up a short story I have been working on all weekend. There aren’t any problems with the story, it’s first draft drivel but it fills out the page count on S.P. so I’m happy with it; I am just having minor issues with transitioning to the end.
Like most of my work, it’s kinda Twilight Zonish; weirdness in the midst of a starkly realistic universe and this time it was the starkly realistic universe part I was having trouble transitioning to. The Internet has a bounty of information to give, especially if one has the tenacity or training to “really” look for what they need; and yet I still couldn’t find the answer to my question.
So I did the unthinkable…Picking up my iPhone, I called the only person who had the information needed, my dad.
A smidge of background here will help you get to where I’m going with all this, so down the rabbit hole we go.
I don’t know how many readers out there are children of veterans; be it Vietnam, WWII, Korea, Desert Storm, or Iraq and Afghanistan; but there is one thing all of us can commiserate on and that is the difficulties of growing up with a war torn vet.
I am very lucky in the sense that now, as I enter into middle age, my father is a much different individual then he was when I was growing up in the eighties and nineties. He has gained a serious sense of dignity and reproach when dealing with the horrors of war he witnessed, not allowing it to be the center of his life while having the ability to look at it introspectively as well as retrospectively.
However, growing up in the shadow of a PTSD Vietnam vet trying to gain a toehold over the darkest part of his mind was a completely different story. There were things we just didn’t talk about, movies we didn’t watch, and times when we just knew “not to fuck with dad”. Having my parents split up kinda saved my sister from the brunt of his worst times; (not that she was spared completely, she carries her own scars), but even she has no idea what it was like to be on the front lines for all those years growing up.
One of those things we never did was sit down and actually talk to my dad about his experiences. It wasn’t because none of us wanted to know; in fact, in my case it was the complete opposite…not knowing was and is the biggest mystery in my life.
In my sixteen years of growing up under my father’s roof I had picked up glimmers; tiny fragments of stories, often when he didn’t think I was around or listening, but these did nothing except fuel that fire within me that so desperately wanted to know.
It was this separation; this unyielding brick wall, that shaped a great deal of my interests and the manner in which I learn about things forever. I have spent the majority of my life in search of knowledge military, historical, and political; I know there is no Black or White in the world because I have witnessed enough variable gradient in the actions of history to know if you dig long enough there is something out there just waiting to turn your clean Black & White universe into a mass of gray.
I delve deeply into subjects that other people might find repugnant or unsavoury just because I can; I have file folders filled with the brightest moments and darkest lows of humanity, all just waiting to be incorporated into my fictional universe somehow.
There isn’t a topic I am afraid of reading about or writing about…except for my father’s experiences in Vietnam. Even breeching the topic is uncomfortable for me, and not just because of the respect I afford him due to my belief in the idea that every man has the right to share only what he wants to share with the world.
It is because no matter what I write or how much I research, I can never know what it was like for him and in a way; a very masculine, real survivor sense, I have always believed he didn’t think I could be enough of a man to open his box of secrets even if he gave me the key.
I have read stories in the past about other fathers and sons struggling with overcoming traumatic experiences in their familial past but the one I really connected to was the graphic novel MAUS by Art Spiegelman.
I know it involves a completely different issue (survivor guilt vs combat induced PTSD) but at its core the strained relationship between Art and his father on those pages were what drew me back to its pages over and over again, searching desperately for an answer to a problem I felt we shared.
The little things his father would do because of his experiences in the Holocaust, like stockpiling food and not wasting anything, that drove Art crazy in the book reminded me of learning not to grab hold of my father while he slept because of his tendency to wake up swinging, or him teaching me to put my left boot on first because other wise it was unlucky. The time he shot me in the ass with a BB gun because I crossed into the “line of fire” to set up more cans for us to practice with will live on forever thanks to the many times my tale of “tail” has been told at family reunions.
Life shapes each and every one of us, and not always in the ways we would like it to. We must learn to adapt, to evolve and for those of us who have these special people in our lives we must learn to live with their dark shadows in our world. Art’s story is just as telling as his father’s; his mother’s suicide, dealing with the magnitude of the world of evil his parents had to learn to survive in, how it shaped the man he was to become and the art that gave him the ability to express it.
Over my lifetime I have come to accept the realities of dealing with my father and his shadowy world that shaped not just his life but mine as well. However, I don’t want you to think I haven’t tried to bring it out into the light.
I assure you that despite my father’s insistence on keeping the details of this part of his life his own, I have on many occasions floated the idea of writing his experiences just so others could have the benefit of learning from it. On all such occasions I have received a resounding “No Thank You”; which in Dutch speak generally includes several colourful obscenities.
He doesn’t want to share those experiences with the world and I don’t blame him…but he and I are completely different creatures.
My whole life is based around the idea of expressing myself, generally in a manner that entertains as well as enlightens. His life shaped mine, so there will always be this little olive drab box in the back of my mind with “Vietnam” printed on it in big block military stencil waiting to escape out on to the page.
Back in real time; as his ring tone of Toby Keith’s “How do you like me now?” blared over my iPhone’s speaker phone, I sat there waiting in nervous apprehension for him to answer but smiling just a little. It’s funny the little things he does to give the world the bird; this song was his way of telling the whole world exactly what he thought of it before picking up with a cordial “What you doin’ Bones?” in his gravely Texas baritone.
Restively making small talk, joking about how I caught him with his check book in front of him doing the bills and should I call him back so he didn’t accidentally bankrupt himself; I slowly built up my courage to ask him the questions I needed answered for my short story.
I stuttered and stammered before finally getting around to asking my question when a miracle happened. For an hour today he picked up the box, unlocked it, and answered everyone of my questions; even adding in stuff along the way I never asked but always wondered about.
I don’t know what made today different then any other day for him, I just know that it was. For the first time in my life, that wall that hid a large part of what shaped my dad as a young man cracked just a little and I am very grateful.
I will never get the whole story out of him… I’m certain if you asked Art Spiegelman does he think he got the entire story out of his father, his answer would be “Hell no!” There are always going to be things, dark desperate moments in the lives of some people, that they will never share with another soul.
The key is being happy with the parts of the tale you do get.